Nathan Hill’s debut novel, “The Nix,” is an unqualified smash. It’s the story of a failed writer, college professor and video game fanatic named Samuel, whose mother Faye abandons him as a child. Years later, when Faye is arrested for throwing rocks at a political candidate, the media uncovers a number of secrets about her past – including an arrest for prostitution – and Samuel is determined to discover why she walked out of his life. Lyrical, poignant and often hilarious, with a crackling good plot line, Hill’s book has drawn comparisons to the writers John Irving, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon and Charles Dickens. Publication rights for “The Nix” have been sold in 16 countries, and the story was optioned for a television series with J.J. Abrams and Meryl Streep attached. It came out in paperback earlier this week.
Born in Iowa, Hill spent his childhood moving from state to state with his father’s job – to Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma and Kansas – before attending college at the University of Iowa. I recently interviewed Hill by phone. Here are the edited highlights of our conversation.
You moved around the Midwest a lot in your childhood. How did it affect you as a writer?
If you’ve ever been the new kid at a school, you know it’s kind of brutal. So I would read a lot – that was how I passed the time until I made new friends. People have asked me how I wrote a main character whose mother abandoned him, when my mom never abandoned us. Every time I moved as a kid, I wasn’t abandoned, but it felt like it. Suddenly you lose everybody. That isolation, that loneliness -- I gave it to Samuel.
Samuel decides he wants to be a novelist when he writes a story in school that the teacher loves and reads to the class. This was inspired by a personal experience?
The first book I ever wrote was “The Castle of No Return” in second grade. I describe it pretty faithfully in “The Nix.” Last time I was visiting my parents we looked through all of the old boxes and actually found it. It’s a “choose your own adventure” book and the teacher read my book aloud to the class. I was just sitting in back, cherishing the moment.
Is it as good as you remember?
No, it’s really bad. In a good “choose your own adventure” book, any choice that you make leads to a full complete story with a full arc. But the choices I gave my reader were like stubby, dead tree branches: ‘Do you want to go left or do you want to go right? If you go left, you die.’ It wasn’t incredibly imaginative, but I was in second grade so I guess I can give myself a break.
“The Nix” has hilarious references to popular culture – social media, TV cable news, video gamers. What made you want to comment on the absurd parts of American culture?
Chekov said he could describe an ashtray and his various obsessions would still come out in the description. It’s sort of like that. In a more intellectual pointy-headed way, the book is about people not communicating. Isn’t it odd that the system of mass communication we have in the U.S. is now being blamed for not telling us what reality is, for being in a bubble and being biased and being fake? I think that’s what I’m reacting to mostly.
There was a cataclysmic turning point in your career in 2004 when you moved to New York. What happened and how did it affect you?
I went to the University of Massachusetts for grad school and when I finished I moved to New York. I had to be out of my [one-month] sublet in the morning but I couldn’t move into my other apartment until the evening. So I put all my stuff in my car and went to work. I came back at the end of the day and found the car empty. Everything had been stolen, including the computer [containing] everything I’d written in my graduate school program, and all the backup disks that I had made of my writing, that I stupidly had right next to the computer.
How long did it take to even process that experience?
It was a terrible moment. I was really sad, especially given that I wanted to live in New York my entire life. But honestly, I was 25 or 26 years old and determined -- so I started writing again fairly quickly. I stayed in New York for two years and then I got a teaching job down in Florida where this woman I was dating at the time also lived. We’re now married so it was the right move.
I read that your first short story collection was turned down by 38 literary agents. Did you think at some point you would enjoy this kind of success or was it the love of the process itself that kept you writing?
You never think your book is going to do this. Those 38 rejections taught me what I was doing wrong. When you’re in school and you do work that’s good enough to get the A, it’s easy to start thinking that life will work like that. So I wrote these short stories that were crafted well, the sentences were solid, all of the character development widgets were turned properly. But I wrote them to get published. And predictably, they were kind of cold, maybe a little emotionally distant. I was writing for all the wrong reasons.
How did you flip your writing from a careerist mode to a focus on the work itself?
I moved away from New York and I stopped being involved in publishing. I stopped sending stories out and querying. I wrote the things that kind of burned for me. For example, for a long while I felt like I couldn’t possibly write about video games in a “literary novel” because I’d never seen that done before. So in some ways I had to give myself permission to do it.
Was there a moment you said ‘this is the day I am going to start writing the story I’m passionate about?’ What made you turn that corner?
I think it would be easy to Monday-morning quarterback it and say ‘well on September 14, 2009…’ But it was probably more the result of hundreds of very small decisions. You wake up in the morning and decide you’re going to write that day, and you make certain choices in the next two to three hours that push you in very subtle ways toward one type of book or another. I guess it was the process of making a certain kind of choice over and over and over again.
You studied with the novelist Sara Levine at University of Iowa. She recently told the New York Times that if she didn’t know a "really grounded, mature person" wrote “The Nix,” she would be “worried for Nathan Hill’s soul.” How do you get your head around this kind of success after so many years of effort?
Fortunately, I have a lot of friends who have known me [since] I was completely obscure and failing. And they like to remind me of my obscurity and failure as soon as my head gets a little too big. In that very New York Times story there’s a picture of me wearing black and standing in a park. Very quickly after that my friends started texting me and decided they were going to have a caption contest for that photo. All of them were poking mild fun at the serious author wearing black.
Some of the comparisons are just a marketing maneuver because no one knows who I am. ‘If you like Pynchon and Irving, maybe you’ll like this book.’ Obviously when John Irving said such nice things that was a kind of pinch me moment for sure. He was one of my early literary heroes, so to have him on my team is pretty amazing.
Nathan Hill will speak at the Des Moines Public Library on May 11. Go here for more information.